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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Devastation haunts responders

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Recently, members of the Monett Fire Explorers Post #2001, pictured above, spent the day with the Joplin Fire Department. Explorers gave on-duty firefighters a little break by helping clean fire hoses, uniforms and other equipment salvaged from two of Joplin's fire stations damaged in last week's series of tornadic storms that battered the city. After completing their duties, Explorers were given a tour of the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and a drive through of the impacted area. Pictured above, from left, are: Connor Anderson, Mason Anderson, Rachel Young, Jared Kaler, Wesley Wiseman, and a Joplin firefighter assigned to what is left of Joplin's Fire Station #2 near St. John's Hospital.
Various local emergency responders were among the first to arrive in Joplin following the devastating May 22 tornado, and for most, the scene was so surreal as to be unbelievable.

Lawrence County Sheriff Brad DeLay said that officers originally responded to the Wentworth area to investigate reports of damage there and then moved on to Joplin, where officers were staged at 20th and Range Line.

"It was total chaos," DeLay said. "People were trying to get into the area and to their homes. Basically, we started search efforts in that area later that night and into the early morning hours. There was lots of activity around the Home Depot area, people moving debris and finding seven or eight people trapped inside.

"It was difficult to keep people out when they were desperate to find their loved ones," DeLay continued. "But the area was so devastated that people didn't recognize anything. There were no street signs left to determine a location.

"That first night, there was almost too many people trying to help, and Joplin couldn't utilize everyone."

DeLay said that the Missouri Sheriff's Association now has a daily bulletin with the numbers and types of resources needed in the Joplin area, be it law enforcement, firefighters, rescue personnel, or most recently, requests for debris removal.

"We will continue to send resources as requested until the crisis is over," DeLay said. "Joplin is facing a long recovery period, and those resources will have to be spread out over the long haul so they aren't overworked."

Monett Police Chief Tim Schweder also sent over two dozen officers to the storm-wrecked community.

"We also had members from the street department and fire department responding to Joplin," Schweder said. "Our animal control officer, Alicia Graves, has also been helping recover animals that have been separated from their families."

Initially, officers were assigned to traffic control and asked to prevent looters from scavenging the area.

"We worked 14-hour shifts after that first night," Schweder continued.

Kermit Howell, a sergeant with the Monett Police Department, was one of the early responders.

"We were assigned to traffic checkpoints and random patrols," Howell said. "I have never seen devastation this large.

"When we went to 20th and Murphy Boulevard we found two National Guardsmen, and they didn't know where we were supposed to be," Howell said. "There were no street signs, nothing recognizable. No one could figure out where we were supposed to be."

Howell, a veteran of the 2003 tornado that ripped through Pierce City, said there was no comparison between the two tragedies.

"Pierce City was a cakewalk to secure compared to Joplin," he said. "Joplin is huge. It's impossible to put a comprehensive ring around the city to secure it."

And while the two disasters were a result of massive tornadic storms, Howell said the difference in the scope of damage is staggering.

"Behind Joplin High School there is a small rise of land," Howell said. "When you stand there, you look out as far as the eye can see and there is only matchsticks. Kindling. There's nothing there."

While some reports of looting were heard, Howell said the people with whom he dealt were legitimate in their quests to find their homes and salvage anything that could be found among the rubble.

"The people I talked to were in a decent frame of mind when you consider what they had just gone through," Howell said. "They were wanting to get it cleaned up and get back to their lives.

"But the sheer volume of debris that needs to be cleared," he said, "it's astronomical."

Barry County Sheriff Mick Epperly said that six officers and a handful of paramedics and emergency responders also took part in securing the area on Sunday night.

"We worked from about 6 p.m. on Sunday through to 5 p.m. on Monday," Epperly said. "We were assigned to body recovery, traffic patrols and to watch for looters.

"We had two officers there when [President Barack] Obama was in Joplin at the memorial service," Epperly continued. "Even though we had reserve officers pulling duty here to keep the county covered, it was all hands on deck for the rest of us. The need was there."

Epperly said the department would continue sending resources as needed, but those early memories will haunt him, and other responders, for weeks and months to come.

"You just get teary eyed for those people," Epperly said. "But it's great to see volunteers, churches and organizations jumping on board. This is what America is all about."

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